The Anal-Retentive Architect, Part One

Once more unto the beach...

By the time I was ready to start dating again—six months after leaving Seattle, in the early winter months of 1999—internet matchmaking sites had begun to stake out serious real estate in cyberspace. (Remember that I had met Peter via the old-fashioned print personals, and Jeff through Wendy.) This seemed the only course of action available if I wanted to be mated again, and so I dutifully signed on to and filled out the questionnaire (like, does anyone really care about my astrological sign?) and uploaded a few photos. I had been advised by another midlife singleton to let the guys seek me out, since men prefer to initiate the chase. And so I did.

I began quickly to recognize some of the favorite clichés: “I look great in a tux or jeans,” “I really love to spoil a woman,” “I’m spiritual but not religious.” So many described themselves as a “Renaissance man” that I thought it might be fun to devise a smart-ass, Google-proof quiz (What was the name of Titian’s best friend, Italy’s first publicist? And what was the title of his bawdy book of poetry? Who was the young Roman aristocrat for whom Michelangelo wrote sonnets? What’s a common method to transfer drawings from paper to the wall in fresco painting? And so on.) But I refrained. A smarty-pants attitude had led me nowhere in the quest for love.

One of the first to respond to my ad was a retired publisher in Bermuda. I would have ignored this one, but his photos were attractive and the idea of a week or so in Bermuda in the middle of a blizzard-choked winter in godforsaken central New Jersey was even more attractive. We corresponded for a bit. In one of my emails, I mentioned that I was headed into New York on a Saturday afternoon to see “The Tales of Hoffmann” at the Metropolitan Opera. He wrote back and asked what I would be wearing. It seemed an innocent-enough question. I told him high-heeled black boots and my beautiful Calvin Klein wool coat with the fur collar and cuffs, probably my last purchase on the ex’s Platinum card before we officially split. And that’s about all I was willing to divulge.

When I returned that evening there was a note from him. “Forgive me. I got so excited thinking about you all dressed up for the opera that I came all over my computer.”

I slammed my laptop shut and stayed away from for a few days. Later I would wonder if he fried his keyboard.

But inevitably I did go out on dates. I was working at a gallery in Chelsea a few afternoons a week, mostly to get out of godforsaken central New Jersey, so it was easier to meet men in the city. I had dinner with a ghostwriter who looked like Rasputin. I had drinks with a chauffeur for a rich Park Avenue couple, because, Why not? Locally, I briefly considered a guy who had a Harvard degree and a red Porsche but worked in a Home Depot garden center (it was over when I went to his house in the woods, which looked like it had been caught in a crossfire between the Hatfields and the McCoys—I think he even had a still). I began to long for the stability of marriage with my verbally abusive but predictable ex-husband. Are they all insane? I wondered.

And then along came Tom.

I have said that I don’t have a “type” in men, but I do have a type that is not my type. If you get my drift. And that was Tom.  In face and figure, he was the opposite of Jeff: rotund, a bit shorter than I, with apple cheeks and a receding hairline. But in his favor he was an architect who could write a decent English sentence and he was nicely dressed, in a J.Crew preppy sort of way.

Our first date was a dud. We met at a restaurant near the gallery, a huge loftlike space with soaring ceilings and real bamboo trees. He pronounced the décor “very ‘80s” in a dismissive tone of voice, and before the evening was over approved an emerald-cut garnet ring I wore on my left hand but declared watch as too big for my wrist. “You have a very unusual style,” he told me, though I’ve never been conscious of having any style whatsoever.

But an attention to lines and surfaces seemed to be second nature to Tom, who had studied architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where the department’s curriculum had been completely overhauled by none other than Bauhaus pioneer Mies van der Rohe. He had his own architectural firm whose principal client was Barnes & Noble bookstores, still flourishing nationwide in those pre-Amazon days. Of course, he wondered how I wound up Hightstown, NJ, when I was so obviously a city person. I gave him the short version of the Year of Living Stupidly.

When it was his turn to talk about recent romances, he briefly described a five-year relationship with an interior designer, who had broken off with him a few months earlier. Then he started crying.

Oh, holy crap, thought I, remembering the Tom Brokaw lookalike I met up with about five years earlier. Another crybaby.

It was a short evening.

But Tom wrote the next morning, profusely apologetic, and asked me to go out with him again. Because there are not that many men in the city willing to date a woman from godforsaken central New Jersey, I said yes. And yes to a third and fourth date because things were getting warmer. He was not the sort to make me fall head over heels, but he was sweet and comfortable, and perhaps after the tumultuous year in the Pacific Northwest, this was what I needed. And he always insisted on picking up the check, which was something of a novelty, I’d discovered, in the midlife dating world.

And yet as chummy as we were becoming after several dates, he never once made a move. And I am not generally the one to lunge first.

Perhaps the best way to get this show on the road, I decided, was to invite him out to Montauk for a weekend. By then it was early summer, and even if he chose to keep up the chaste routine, there were two bedrooms and plenty of dog-eared paperbacks, a VCR, and a cassette player to provide other forms of entertainment.

And so we drove out to the end of the island in Tom’s white BMW convertible (a welcome surprise after Jeff’s beat-up van).

Share Rotten Romance

Because this little house was always a refuge and a retreat for me, especially in the last years of my parents’ life, when they were too frail to make the trip north from Florida for the summer, it seems worth describing. It was a modest little pre-fab, built in the 1960s as part of a development known as Culloden Point and intended as a retirement community (though who would want to spend winters in their sunset years in wind-battered Montauk is beyond me). There were three basic house plans in the neighborhood, one of which was featured at an international expo in Moscow and served as the setting for the 1959 exchange between Richard Nixon and Nikita Khruschev that became known as the Kitchen Debate.

The houses—the line was known as Leisurama—were designed by the firm of Loewy/Snaith (co-founded by famed industrial designer Raymond Loewy) and marketed both through local realtors and, amazingly, Macy’s department store in New York. Visitors to the Herald Square store’s ninth floor could view and purchase an entire house. Reported the Times in 2003: “The package deal included a 730- to 1,200-square-foot house on a 75-by-100-foot lot, as well as state-of-the art appliances, furniture, housewares and everything else a family would need for a weekend in the sun, including toothbrushes and toilet paper. The cost was roughly $13,000 to $17,000.”

My parents ended up with an unfurnished two-bedroom model because of something called a “chattel mortgage,” which meant the bank had seized most of the movable contents from the previous owners. So over the years the place filled up with cast-offs from their Upper West Side apartment and from yard sales, along with closets full of the detritus of childhood: ice cream makers, board games, snorkeling gear, and my teen-age drawings of nudes lifted from Robert Hale’s Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters. By the time of my on-and-off residency, the drapes were moth-eaten, the carpeting and furniture badly frayed, and the appliances on their last legs.

Tom was enchanted with the history and seemed not at all dismayed by the shabby interior. “I will help you fix it up!” he declared over a candlelit dinner at the restaurant next to Lake Montauk.

So it seemed we had a future after all.

One that looked even more promising after a moonlit stroll on the beach and an energetic night in my parents’ queen-sized bed.

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Top: A Leisurama house in Montauk, NY (not ours)